Steve Braunias resumes – or possibly ends – his series on preparing for Doomsday with a contemplation on his, and the planet's, mortality.
The trouble with preparing for the end of the world is that your own world is more likely to be the first to end. This was the second of two notions that occurred to me after crossing the street in my neighbourhood one winter's morning, and suddenly experiencing an acute physical distress which gave me the idea I was about to keel over and die. No one shall know the time of their demise but I felt I was being given a very strong hint that it would be around about 11:17am on a Friday. The acute physical distress manifested itself at 11:16am.
Sixty seconds to get your house in order, to wrap things up, to sign off: I still hadn't made it to the supermarket. I was on my way to buy beans, rice, wet wipes, rubbish bags, and string – we were about to go on holiday, and I wanted to stock up on a few household items in the event that we'd come home and immediately have to face the prospect of Doomsday.
Preparing for Doomsday occupied my thoughts a great deal last year. I wrote a series about it for the Herald, read up on it, acted on it. I did my best to prepare for the worst. It requires eternal vigilance as well a good sense of humour because laughter is better than a state of anxiety, panic, dysfunction. I'm no good at the vigilance part - the last I inspected my Doomsday provisions, it was full of pastas that had passed their expiry date, and I don't know if two bars of Johnson's baby soap will go a long way – and no good at the laughter part, either.
I don't find the thought of the end of life as we know it particularly funny. I worry about it all the time. I lie in bed at night and can't sleep for the various assorted thrashings of the daemons of the apocalypse inside my head. They're not mythical or fanciful daemons; they're people in the neighbourhood, roaming around, wanting in, getting in, taking our food, taking whatever they want.
• Steve Braunias: Spending Doomsday with Kim Dotcom
• Steve Braunias: Back to the future of Doomsday
• Steve Braunias: First aid for doomsday
• Steve Braunias: The bodyguard at the end of the world
• Steve Braunias: Why I'm preparing for the end of the world
"I see bloody fountains," Neil Young sings in Revolution Blues, his lurid, exciting vision of shit hitting the fan, "and ten million dune buggies coming down the mountain!" There aren't any fountains or mountains in my neighbourhood. There's nothing elevated for a convoy of amazing machines to descend on the way to a pillaging. It's a flat, damp peninsula, seeping into mangroves, surrounded by a sucking tide. The banks of the creek are higher in some places than others. There are dense and dark jungles, tangled in vines, fortresses of squat, stubborn mangroves. They provide perfect cover.
I've gone in there sometimes at low tide and walked my way to the banks of the creek. No one can possibly see where you are. You could be doing anything in there.
The mud looks like it's breathing, too: everywhere there are little holes in the surface, dug by crabs. The crabs stay still when you move, and move when you stay still. White-faced herons stalk the banks of the creek and pick at the crabs with their long, narrow bills. They don't look like much of a meal. They're very small crabs, only as wide as fingernails. But the birds look at them like we regard rice: one grain isn't the point, it's a matter of gathering an accumulative and filling substance, which is to say I've thought that maybe it might work out to hide from the apocalypse in mangrovia.
Preppers – people who are preparing for end days – talk about the importance of "bugging out", which is code for somewhere rural and isolated that they'll rush to and begin their new life of survival. It'll have shelter, food, water, fuel, ammunition. Mangrovia offers a kind of shelter. It has various forms of food. You could light a fire in there at night-time and no one would see the flames as you crouch beside the heat and pin the crabs with a sharp stick....
Anxiety, panic, dysfunction. What in the hell was I thinking, that I could survive in a mangrove creek? Filthy damned place, crawling with rats, no hygiene, no ground cover, no roof, no hope.
Even the principle was unsound. In part, I wander off into mangroves to get away from people; it's why I thought of them as a likely sanctuary when the end comes from an airborne toxic event. But this is the central flaw of prepping. "Bugging out" and most ideas of survival are predicated on the need to escape, to get away from people. It's the essential belief that we best get on the run, that the savage hordes are fast on our heels – they cover a lot of ground quickly in them ten million dune buggies. It's fear. It's the idea of society as a cell, a family unit.
But why not assume that civilisation will do its best to function and continue as a community? Instead of the expectation of fighting for every crust, killing each other in bloodied fountains, men reaching out and taking women and little girls by force, why not the plain, unsentimental vision of communities pooling their resources, and providing shelter, food, water, fuel – strike out ammunition, and replace with health care. "We must love one another or die", WH Auden wrote. Come over to my house. I have beans, rice, wet wipes, rubbish bags, and string – well, I meant to get them, but then the sun came up over a roof at 11:16am on a Friday and my world was ending.
Man, 58, expiring. As I crossed the street, the sun came up from behind a building. Winter sunlight is so white, so blinding. I got to the pavement and the whole of my left leg went numb; simultaneously, I felt very light-headed, dizzy. To stand on my left leg was to feel that strange, heavy weight of paraesthesia, or pins and needles. Like the patellar reflex, when a struck knee swings out, pins and needles are one of the more curious sensations in the human body. There's a kind of comedy about it – when there's no known cause for a tingling foot, the term that applies is idiopathic. It's a passing failure of nerve, it's a numbness paying a quick visit then packing its bags.
But there are also a range of serious causes for paraesthesia. It could be the result of carbon monoxide poisoning. Kidney failure. Autoimmune break-down. Lime disease. Lime disease! Or, surely, and this was my distinct suspicion as I hobbled along the pavement, cardiac failure.
I was having a heart attack in broad daylight on a Friday in winter. My heart had caught up with me. It was on the cards. I was unwell. I had gone into hospital for a major procedure a few weeks earlier. I lay down like the evening spread out against the sky, and was insinuated with anesthetic. A woman two beds down died in agony the next morning. There was something resembling a lamb chop for lunch. It rained every night. They said, "Do you know what you're in for?"
I said, "I have a bad heart."
They said, "What do you know about a radio frequency pulmonary vein isolation procedure that we're going to perform on you?"
I said, "It's to fix my bad heart."
I preferred the term "fluttering heart". The medical term was atrial fibrillation, an ungainly pair of words which meant my heartbeat was random, haphazard, chaotic. It could lead a stroke, they said. It increases the risk of it, they said. They tried electric shock treatment for a year and that didn't hold and now they were tried a radio frequency pulmonary vein isolation procedure. They wanted to restore the heartbeat to sinus rhythm. They estimated the chances of success were maybe 50 per cent. It was a long procedure and afterwards they kept me in for tests, and they said "clotting" and "brain" and "danger". I never really listened that closely but the gist of it was death.
Death, while standing on a street corner opposite the supermarket, high as a kite with waves of dizziness, the left foot as numb and insensate as the cast-iron claw of a bath. I held two rubbish bags in each hand. I was a good citizen. Our daughter mentioned one day that the local Countdown supermarket had installed a Love NZ Soft Plastics Recycling bin; shoppers were welcome to stuff it with the soft plastic wrap which comes with frozen
food, biscuits, pasta, toilet paper, potato chips, courier envelopes – it comes with masses of things, I quickly discovered, as I set up a bag beneath the kitchen sink and filled it with wrap. We now threw very little out in the rubbish. Fruit and vegetables went into the compost bin, glass and paper went to the recycle bin, stale bread and left-over rice, pasta, and cereal went to the birds. I went to the supermarket with bags full of wrap.
"I'm trying, Ringo," says Jules (Samuel L Jackson) in Pulp Fiction. "I'm trying real hard." So many of us are committed to doing small, good things that help to clean the planet. We're making informed purchases of detergents, we're reading about electric cars, we're collecting liquid from the tap on our worm farms. We're recycling, we're saying the word "sustainable", we're thinking about the future. We're trying our best. There is so much everyday goodness in the world and the thought, the optimism is that it's adding up to a hill of beans, that it's making a difference.
Down in mangrovia, in and around the creek near my house, I wander through the jungles with a black rubbish bag, and fill it with junk – chip wrappers, bottles, toys, machine parts, plastic tubs, Styrofoam coffee cups, all the things. But they got there in the first place because people threw them out of cars, dropped them on the pavement. So many of us are actively contributing to the planet sinking beneath its waste and its filth, the sheer, crushing weight of all its fucking things. The prospects are hopeless. Nothing makes a difference. It's doomed, isn't it? "We must love one another or die" – Auden came to detest that line, thought it sentimental, glib, false, had it removed from anthologies. The world is going to hell and when it gets there it's not going to get by on love, or community spirit, or the kindness of strangers.
Head for cover, or stay indoors? "I'd probably barricade myself in with a shotgun," said television writer Neil Cross, asked by a journalist how he'd prepare for Doomsday, "and a chemical toilet."
The interview was to promote Neil's series Hard Sun, a "pre-apocalyptic" crime drama about two detectives who discover that a mysterious cosmic event will destroy the earth in five years. He'd gone to great lengths to imagine the end of the world, but was sketchy on the details of how he'd go about surviving it. I wasn't any better. I wanted to barricade myself in, too, but I didn't know how to get hold of a shotgun, and lay awake in bed at night thinking of what damage I could do or what threat I could pose with an air rifle. Looters, reaching in and taking – I'd open fire, I'd shoot, I'd see them off the premises.
I didn't really want to leave the house in the event of a national state of emergency. I didn't want to traipse down to a stinking mangrove. There had been a kind of rehearsal for end times when the power in our part of the city was knocked out by a wild storm; the rain lashed down, trampolines went flying, the last thing anyone wanted to do in their cold, dark homes was to leave it. A fire truck drove slowly down our street at midnight, and shone a bright beam into the houses. I went out on to the front porch.
"Are you alright?", a fireman called out.
I shouted over the wind: "Yes!"
Except I was about to go missing. I was about to be taken out of the picture; I was about to be taken out, on a Friday morning. The sun had come up over a building, its sudden, blinding light in my eyes – was this the hard sun Neil Cross had imagined in his TV show? And then the dizziness, and the paraesthesia, the heart attack. Surely it was a heart attack. It was the only possible explanation. What else could have caused it? It can't have been an acute attack of hypochondria. It can't have been the extremely remote and really quite lame possibility of postural hypotension. Also known as orthostatic hypotension, it's basically an abrupt drop in blood pressure. It causes dizziness, and paraesthesia. It's commonly triggered by simply standing up after lying down. Another cause, as my GP explained that morning, when I described my walk to the shops, was being blinded by a glaring light. The sun, for example...
Okay, The sun did it. That, and an acute attack of hypochondria. It was nothing, I was fine, the world blunders on despite nuclear weapons, despite climate change, despite ideas, despite the need to annihilate each other, despite everything we throw at it. I certainly don't think it's pointless to prepare for the worst. I admire people who lay down provisions, have a plan. I have no naive or touching faith that the state will protect us if services disintegrate – it didn't do a great job during last year's blackout in Auckland – and I wish I had a generator, a getaway car, a gun. I worry late at night. But the rest of the time I'm too busy to worry about an event that may never happen sometime in the future.
Too busy living, too busy dying.
I wanted to sit down on the pavement that morning but kept moving. An elderly lady walked towards me. An elderly man drove past in a small car. How was it that these two old buzzards lived to what appeared to a great age, and I was set to expire in merely my fifth decade to heaven? It was a cold morning. The trees were bare. I wondered about sitting down on the pavement and asking for help.
But I made it to the supermarket and put the four bags of wrap in the Love NZ Soft Plastics Recycling bin. It cost a great effort – I was woozy, afraid, I needed to lie down - but I wanted the last thing I did to be the right thing. He left the world a better place. I looked at my watch. It was 11.28am: the time to die had passed.